Chicago to pay 6-figure settlement to man who says cops brutalized him at family cookout

Advocates say the new settlement raises questions about problem cops and a lack of accountability on the force.

People gather in front of the Chicago Police Department where they stage a demonstration ,  on October 20, 2017, in memory of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police. (CREDIT: Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People gather in front of the Chicago Police Department where they stage a demonstration , on October 20, 2017, in memory of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police. (CREDIT: Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee voted Friday to approve a $210,000 settlement for Kendall McClennon, who says three city police officers brutalized and harassed him at a family cookout in 2012. The full Council is expected to approve the settlement Jan. 17.

One of the three officers involved in the suit, Raymond Piwnicki, has a long history of complaints. His employee records show 89 civilian complaints — a lot, experts say, even for an officer who spent years on units that have a lot of direct, physical contact with suspects. Investigators only substantiated five of those allegations.

Over his 19 years on the force, Piwnicki has also been named in seven federal civil rights suits alleging abuse. Six of the seven ended in settlements totaling $394,500, including the new settlement. This is the first settlement involving Piwnicki to cross the $100,000 threshold for City Council approval.

Crista Noel, co-founder of the Chicago advocacy group Women’s All Points Bulletin, said Piwnicki’s history raises serious questions about how the Chicago Police Department holds officers accountable.

“This one guy has almost cost the city a half a million dollars,” she said of Piwnicki. “And he’s not gone?”

McClennon, Piwnicki, and one of the other officers involved in the incident, Thomas Carey, did not respond to a request for comment. The third officer who was involved, Brian McDevitt, died suddenly in 2013, and his widow could not be reached for comment. The Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Piwnicki and Carey, declined to comment.

The new settlement resolves a nearly six-year-long federal civil rights suit McClennon, 41, filed against the City of Chicago and the three officers. The suit claimed Piwnicki tackled, tasered, and handcuffed McClennon at a backyard barbecue in 2012 while uttering racial slurs. It also charged McDevitt and Carey with failing to intervene and with helping Piwnicki cover up the alleged abuse.

In a response filing, Piwnicki admitted that he used an “emergency takedown and open hand strike” on McClennon before tasing him. However, Piwnicki denied any wrongdoing. The settlement does not admit any wrongdoing on the part of the officers.

The incident began when the officers spotted McClennon from their unmarked police car as he urinated in the alley behind a family member’s house. When the officers approached McClennon he fled into the house’s fenced in backyard, according to Piwnicki’s police report. As the officers chased McClennon, the lawsuit says, they broke down the gate to the backyard, drew their sidearms, and pointed their weapons at his family — charges the officers denied in a court filing.

The officers then tackled and cuffed McClennon and two other men who were standing on the home’s back porch, according to McClennon’s lawsuit. When McClennon’s sister Cicely began taking photographs, the suit and testimony in the case alleges, the officers took her phone and handcuffed her as well. Throughout the altercation, the suit alleges Piwnicki, who is white, addressed the black family with “racially derogatory language” — a consistent theme in other lawsuits and civilian complaints Piwnicki has faced over his 19 years on the force.

What happened next is unclear. Piwnicki testified before McClennon’s criminal trial that he tased McClennon after he cut and bruised Piwnicki’s wrist with his fingernails. That detail is absent from Piwnicki’s arrest report and his testimony during McClennon’s criminal trial, however.

In the arrest report, Piwnicki says he forced McClennon to the ground and eventually tased him in the ear because McClennon grabbed his wrist, “kept threatening” the officer to “get his hands off him,” and resisted arrest. At trial, Piwnicki testified only that he scuffled with McClennon then noticed that his wrist was bleeding — not that McClennon cut his wrist.

Piwnicki treated his own injury, according to testimony he gave in the criminal case. McClennon was taken to Holy Cross Hospital that night complaining of head and neck pain, and doctors diagnosed him with neck contusion.

Speaking with investigators from the city’s Independent Police Review Authority,  which investigated all use-of-force complaints against officers, after the incident, one witness said Piwnicki tased McClennon when McClennon started vocally objecting to officers handcuffing his sister Cicely as she was taking photographs of the incident.

By the time Piwnicki cuffed and tased McClennon, Piwnicki said during pre-trial testimony, the alleys around the family home were full of police cruisers and 40 some-odd cops had flooded into the back yard to respond to the radio call about a foot pursuit.

Piwnicki charged McClennon with public urination, a minor marijuana charge, resisting arrest, and aggravated battery on a police officer. Only the charge of aggravated battery on an officer made it to trial.

Resisting arrest and assaulting an officer are commonly abused charges across the United States. Inside police culture, officers use the term “contempt of cop” to summarize the wide category of non-violent, non-criminal civilian behavior that can lead an officer to file a criminal case to punish disrespect. In McClennon’s case, Piwnicki’s allegation of aggravated battery was so thin that Judge Howard threw it out within moments of hearing the officer’s testimony.

“There is no indication that Mr. McClendon [sic] caused the injury, and the red mark that I see on the photograph is on the officer’s — I believe this is his right arm,” Howard said after reviewing photos of Piwnicki’s injured wrist, according to a transcript. “I’m not sure that that would rise to the level of bodily harm.”

The astonishing story took nearly six years to resolve in part because a civil suit had to wait until the conclusion of the criminal case. But the half-decade saga also spotlights Chicago’s willingness to keep men like Piwnicki on the street regardless of the costs — in both taxpayer money and the more precious currency of the police department’s legitimacy as a public safety institution serving Chicago citizens.

A report issued in 2016 by the Police Accountability Task Force, convened by Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), called the Independent Police Review Authority “badly broken.” A Department of Justice report on policing in Chicago published in January 2017 determined that the review authority was riddled with problems that skewed in favor of officers and against complainants.

“Almost since its inception, there have been questions about whether the agency performed its work fairly, competently, with rigor and independence,” the Police Accountability Task Force report said. “The answer is no.”

After McClennon’s arrest, a witness filed a complaint withIndependent Police Review Authority. It was the 88th complaint on Piwnicki’s record stretching back 17 years, according to an Employee Complaint History obtained by ThinkProgress. The full Independent Police Review Authority case file, also obtained by ThinkProgress, shows that investigators interviewed several of McClennon’s relatives about the incident and reviewed his medical records. However, there was a lack of physical evidence, the investigator said, and the witnesses’ accounts varied, for example in how many times they said Piwnicki punched McClennon while he was handcuffed. Because of those inconsistencies, the Independent Police Review Authority determined that the complaint was unfounded.

McClennon declined to speak with review authority investigators when they visited him at the hospital after the incident. The Independent Police Review Authority file contains a copy of the narrative in Piwnicki’s arrest report, but there’s no indication investigators tried to interview Piwnicki or the other officers involved in the incident.

The Citizen Police Data Project has published a partial version of Piwnicki’s Employee Complaint History and a summary of the review authority case file in the McClennon incident. ThinkProgress obtained a more up-to-date copy of the complaint history and the complete case file.

Asked why the Independent Police Review Authority didn’t sustain the complaint over McClennon’s arrest while the city chose to settle the civil suit, Mia Sissac, a spokesperson for the review authority’s successor agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, said the two processes are “completely different.”

“The level of liability in a civil complaint is different,” Sissac said. “Our administrative investigations, we’re looking at whether an officer acted outside their rules and regulations.”

Piwnicki hasn’t had any complaints since 2012, when he was promoted to detective, according to the complaint history and court filings in the civil case. It’s rare for detectives to receive civilian complaints because of the nature of their interactions with the public, according to defense lawyers, officials, and policing experts who spoke with ThinkProgress.

The $210,000 settlement in the McClennon case pales in comparison with the $9.3 million the Finance Committee also approved Friday to compensate a man falsely imprisoned thanks to a confession beaten out of him by officers working for disgraced former Chicago police officer Jon Burge, whose notorious “midnight crew” spent nearly two decades grabbing black men and women off the street and torturing confessions out of them.